I walked downstairs, feeling strung out and nauseous. I could hear Becky’s incessant chattering, the sound of dishes being put on the table in the kitchen downstairs, the soft burble of the radio, the deep rumble of Dad’s voice and Mom’s much lighter one. There was someone in the next door garden. A door slammed at the house next door. A toilet flushed at the house on the other side.
I shook my head, closing my mind to it, and forced myself to keep moving.
As I entered the kitchen, Mom looked up from her breakfast and frowned at me. “You’re a bit pale, Mike. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine.” My voice was sharper than it should be. I tried to soften it. “Read too late,” I lied. I stared into the pantry, not seeing it, aware of everyone at the table behind me. I felt . . . as if my skin was alive. Registering every change in the air.
Becky said, “Kerry and I are starting a new project today, Daddy. It’s all about wolves. I like wolves, don’t you? I’d like a wolf like Karla.”
“She’s not a wolf, stupid.”
“Kathryn,” Mom warned. “You know the rule.”
“So-rry,” Kathryn recited, voice truculent. “Anyway, she isn’t a wolf. She’s a German shepherd.”
“I know that. But she’s like a wolf, isn’t she, Daddy?”
“I suppose so, honey.” Dad’s deep rumble sent a twist of panic through me. I pushed it down and concentrated on the pantry.
I could hear Dad’s breathing. I stood on the other side of the room, my back to him. I heard Becky’s voice going up and down, the sound of toast crunching, a plane overhead, the sound of morning traffic, the voices on the radio.
And Dad’s breathing. Louder than the other sounds. More important than the other sounds.
His heart was beating loudly, out of rhythm.
I couldn’t hear his heart!
I took a deep breath, let it out quickly, breathed in at the same time as Dad. And realized what I was doing. I slammed the pantry doors shut and turned quickly, wanting to get away. And stopped.
I saw Becky, like a kitten, all soft and bouncy with bright blue eyes and a button nose, fine ash-blond hair already coming adrift from its pigtails. She smiled at me and the stiff muscles in my face softened as I smiled back involuntarily. God, I’m tense.
My eyes skittered to Kathryn, noting her sharp face, narrow with a small mouth and a thin nose. Her eyes were the same blue as Becky’s but looked washed-out. Her mouse-brown hair was clipped short around her head. Nothing flying free on her.
Mom sat between the two girls. Weird how little Becky and Kathryn look alike while both looking like Mom. Her sharp, fine-featured face and worried blue eyes seemed unfamiliar . . . alien. Her ash-blond hair was long and pulled back into a twist for work, but I had this sudden image of it loose. I felt its weight and softness against my hands. My thoughts shuddered to a stop. Sweat sprang stark to my palms. The knot in my guts tightened. Dad looked at me.
I don’t look anything like Mom.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Captured by wide, slate-gray eyes.
I knew who I looked like.
Becky’s high-pitched voice ran like a red-hot wire through my mind.
“Be quiet!” A bellow that echoed in my head like the frantic clapper of a bell. I couldn’t remember ever hearing Dad shout before. Certainly not at Becky. The girls’ shock charred the air.
Dad looked down at his plate and rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep very well myself last night.” He looked up. “Rebecca? Kathryn? If you’ve finished, I think you should go and get ready for school now.”
“I’m sorry if your head hurts, Daddy.” Becky’s small kitten face was screwed up with concern.
“Thank you, honey. A coffee and some quiet will fix it, I’m sure. You go up and get ready now, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Her bright watchful eyes looked at him a moment longer, then she bounced out of her chair and out the door. Kathryn stayed a moment longer, chewing on the last piece of toast, then dashed out the door without a word to anyone.
Dad looked at me. Slate-gray eyes holding me like a fly in amber.
Mom said, “Mike, you look terrible. Are you sure you’re all right?”
Kneeling before the toilet bowl, retching into it, tasting bile, I knew who was behind me. And who wasn’t. I felt relief, and longing. I sat back on my heels and Mom handed me a glass of water. I rinsed out my mouth and handed it back. She placed a hand on my forehead.
“You do feel a bit feverish.” She caressed my hair. A shiver ran down my spine. “Better?”
I stretched my shoulders back. “Some.” I didn’t look at her.
“Would you like a hot water bottle?”
I shook my head. Standing up, I forced myself to meet her anxious eyes. “Guess I’ve caught a bug.” I brightened. Maybe it was true. “I guess it’s been lying low in my system for a few days. I’ve been feeling a bit off. Now I’ve been sick, I feel much better.”
She studied me. “You look as if you could do with a good sleep.” She pursed her lips in consideration. “Would you like a yogurt drink?”
I barely controlled a shudder. “No, thanks, Mom. I’m not quite ready to face food yet, I guess. I’ll just go back to bed.”
“Perhaps Paul can come home early.”
I shook my head sharply. Swallowing my first hasty words, I managed to say more temperately, “I’ll be fine. I’ll probably just sleep. I’m really bushed.” Scratching my head I added, “Perhaps I’ll have a shower first. I’m really itchy.”
She laughed. “I guess you can look after yourself pretty well, Mike. You ring if you get worse though, okay?”
In the hall upstairs I bumped into Kathryn.
“Mind out!” she snapped. “And keep your bug away from me, okay?” Her bright yellow backpack swung wide from her shoulder and clipped me heavily in the ribs. I let it go. All I could think of was the need to get away. Shutting the door behind me with relief, I threw myself onto the bed.
And they were there, all around me. Looking at me with my father’s eyes.